What does “sustainable seafood” mean?

The past two weeks have been heady ones in New England seafood news, with Legal Seafood’s blacklisted fish dinner at the fore. For anyone who missed it, with the announcement of this dinner, Legal’s has provoked a debate about the ways seafood gets classified as “sustainable.”

They’re serving farmed shrimp from Vietnam, Atlantic cod, and hake, which are all listed “avoid” on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List.

As word of the dinner spread, you could practically feel the reverb from advocacy groups and bloggers. A petition has even been circulated, asking Legal’s to “stop attacking sustainable seafood.”

Was an attack on sustainable seafood the intent? In part, it depends on how you define “sustainable.” Easier said than done, right? Defining sustainability depends on your point of view—it can mean one thing to marine conservationists, another thing to chefs or fishermen, and yet another to big buyers of seafood.

While the blogosphere was erupting over the blacklisted dinner, Massachusetts fishermen were being denied a request to the Commerce Department for emergency aid. Fishermen in this state are struggling to adapt to catch shares, a new regulatory framework that was implemented last spring.

These rules have been contentious. Because the approach caps the amount of fish taken out of specific fishing grounds, as opposed to capping the number of days fishermen could spend at sea, catch shares have been promoted as a sound, quantifiable approach to managing fish populations.

And though it’s been less than a year since catch shares have been implemented, top marine scientists are projecting the end of overfishing and pointing to catch shares as part of the solution.

But despite the upsides, catch shares haven’t caught on with many fishermen—hence the request for aid. One report from the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth estimates that the new rules have cost the state’s fishing industry $40 million since they were implemented in the spring.

So if the new regulations are helping fish populations rebound, but fishermen are going out of business, where does that leave a definition of sustainability that takes ecological as well as social and economic factors into account?

Parsing sustainable seafood is tricky, as author Paul Greenberg points out in this interview with Salon. With different interpretations held by all of the different stakeholders, it will require a lot of cooperation to identify shared goals that make the pursuit of sustainability one that works at every angle.

2011-01-18T15:37:51+00:00January 18th, 2011|Blog|3 Comments

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  1. Jacqueline Church January 19, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    I think one of the most difficult aspects to this discussion is that people assume that if you are “for” the fish then you are “against” the fishermen. It’s just not that simple.

    Economic sustainability is a huge issue and when a region is dependent on one dying industry that’s never a good thing for anyone. Anyone from Detroit, feel free to chime in.

    That doesn’t mean that we chuck conservation out the window or deride it as a conspiracy by “eco-nazis” who are against the fishermen. There needs to be more level-headed, fact-based discussion and that is why I reacted so strongly to Berkowitz’ use of the term “blacklist.” His dismissal of the Chefs Collaborative and conservation organizations was inaccurate and unfair. No one is served by his approach, well, except him.

    In the long run, even the fishermen he currently supports could be out of work if their fishery is depleted and they have not adapted. What will he sell then? Vietnamese shrimp, I suppose.

    Does the chefs collaborative have any suggestions for a workable solution? Maybe it’s time to bring all stakeholders together to explore more sustainable economic plans which balance the needs of the fish and the needs of the fishermen?

  2. LeighB January 19, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    I know, it seems this issue is especially charged and based on decades of mistrust between the different stakeholders. There are some exciting things in the works at least with regards to helping fishermen transition into working within the catch shares model.

    Look for a post from some of our partners on that soon.


  3. Luca Tancredi De Stefanis January 20, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    The Sustainable Seafood-Fog

    The definition of “sustainable” seems to vary greatly, depending on who is using it and how. When you see the word used to describe seafood products, it can be even more enigmatic and misleading -thus entering foggy waters.

    Personal clarity on seafood sustainability are as followed: My first concern is contamination in seafood products; equally significant is ecologival criteria, such as the health of the wild stock; catch methods or farming methods; Finally, our criteria for sustaible seafood should always include socioeconomic and cultural significance of a fishery. As you know, some fisheries look good on paper, but may very well be dominated by large corporate fleets that don’t contribute to the local economy, and so on.

    We are in the era of the triple bottom line. We have proven time and again over the last decade that one can be economically, ecologically and socially balanced and advance in all areaa exhibiting finesse and integrity.

    In the 21st century an operation can function with the three-legged stool model reflecting a balanced stewardship of the Plant, Profits and People. Farms in the Willamette valley are a text model of this, as are the restaurants of Portland.

    Thank you for the very good information.



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